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Swag the dog: Under the fluff, you can still find great stories at Sundance

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Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglov star in Once, one of - Sundances best in 2007.
  • Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglov star in Once, one of Sundances best in 2007.

"Focus on Film" read the ubiquitous pins adorning the 2007 Sundance Film Festival-goers wandering up and down Main Street in Park City, Utah. But it was awfully hard to take the message seriously when it first came attached to a swag bag filled with enough cosmetics, electronics, jewelry and/or clothing to finance one of those films.

As the festival has exploded in growth over the last decade, Sundance staffers have done their best to maintain the impression that these 11 days in January are a rarified paradise. But in many ways, the beast is beyond their control.

Boutique storefronts on Main Street are leased to corporations that aim to establish a marketing presence among the elite. Distributors' representatives prowl the screenings, desperate to score the next Little Miss Sunshine. And every time another movie featuring aberrant sexuality becomes an impossible-to-score ticket, it becomes a little more difficult to pretend that the audiences here are infinitely more sophisticated.

It also gets more difficult to pretend that the jury awards are really about identifying the festival's best films. More accurately, juries use their powers to bring attention to films that haven't yet earned distribution deals. So forget about Grand Jury Prize honors for the Dramatic Competition's most polished entries, Joshua and Rocket Science, or for the stunning documentary My Kid Could Paint That. Instead, the Grand Prizes went to the New York immigrant drama Padre Nuestro and the corruption-in-Brazil documentary Manda Bala (Send a Bullet). Both are good, interesting films, and both remain notably bereft of distribution after a festival where distributors were throwing No. 1-starter money at the movie equivalent of career set-up men.

It would be easy to grumble at the juries for such behavior, but one could also see it as an attempt to hang tight to the Sundance mission of promoting the cinematic underdog. This is still a festival, after all, where you could discover a small piece of perfection, like the Irish drama Once, the World Cinema category's Audience Award-winner and the best of the 50 Sundance features I saw this year.

The unassuming tale of a Dublin street musician (singer-songwriter and Frames frontman Glen Hansard) and a Czech immigrant (Marketa Irglov) who begin making beautiful music together initially looks like a hundred other low-budget efforts, with its grainy imagery and naturalistic performances. But the relationship between the two unnamed lead characters blossoms into something wholly original and convincing, with the stunning original songs turning it into something closer to a musical. It's pure, simple, lyrical storytelling and one of the reasons I find myself looking forward to what I'll discover in 2008.

Indeed, storytelling itself came to be one of the interesting themes of Sundance 2007. The two best entries in the Documentary Competition My Kid Could Paint That and Protagonist could not have seemed more dissimilar on the surface. But both movies were fundamentally about the way stories shape the way we perceive the world how the chaos of an individual life can become a narrative, and how those narratives affect the things we value.

We need those stories, these filmmakers tell us, as much as we need "stuff." And as long as artists at Sundance continue to create great stories, they'll have a much greater value than any bag of swag.

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